King’s speech draws on a part of Isaiah that Jews recite after Tisha B’Av—offering a model for revitalizing his missionBy Charles Kopel for Tablet Magazine
Every January, Americans observe Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Rather than celebrating a broader Civil Rights Movement Day, we prefer to tell the story of a singular hero who represented and led the struggle for justice and equality, giving his life for it long before his work was done. And King—in spite of his well-documented personal flaws—gave us exactly the story we need. This story speaks not only to the reverend’s fellow Christians, but to Jews as well.
In calling for black people to be included in American society, King grounded his demands in the nation’s most sacred texts: the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bible. King’s approach thus set him in dialogue with the other received American traditions, Christian and Jewish alike, that accompany these texts. In 1963, King led the historic March on Washington and delivered the rousing “I Have a Dream” speech by which we best remember him. He famously referred to the nation’s founding documents and the Emancipation Proclamation and also quoted this bit from Isaiah 40:
I have a dream that one day “every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together.”
These powerful words link the goal of racial equality with the greater promise of harmony and divinity. They aroused King’s massive audience to action in 1963, the Protestants in attendance hearing a charismatic preacher revive their Social Gospel and the Catholics hearing him echo their liberation theology. The Jews who heard the speech—both those who physically attended the event and those who have studied and cherished his words in the five decades since—likely found the southern preacher’s style less familiar to their religious experiences. But many have undoubtedly been reminded of the haftarah.